Saturday, November 23, 2013


I was crushed to read that Building 19 filed for bankruptcy earlier this month and would be liquidating all of its merchandise.

Some of my favorite times were spent rummaging through the piles of sale items in the Manchester store, even way back when it was located in the former Mammoth Mills building. The store was known for selling many less-than-perfect items at drastically discounted prices. Its slogan was, “Good Stuff, Cheap!”

Most of my Star Wars collection and my husband’s trading-card collection were purchased at Building 19 over the years.

I can remember chuckling at some of the items in the store, however. One day I happened to spot a rack of pretty flannel nightgowns that were priced so low, I thought there had to be some mistake. I soon discovered why they were so cheap. When I took one off the rack and held it up, I saw that the entire hem was burned off.  In fact, all of the nightgowns were in the same condition. That’s because the store often purchased merchandise at fire sales.

In the late 1980s, I worked a mystery shopper, where I was assigned to go to different stores and restaurants and then fill out reports about my experiences. I was delighted when I was assigned to shop at all of the Building 19 stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I mean, imagine actually being paid to go shopping in my favorite store?  It was my dream job.

All of the stores I’d mystery shopped prior to Building 19 had specific forms to fill out, but Jerry Ellis, the founder of Building 19, insisted upon first-person essays. He wanted to read stories – honest narratives – not forms.  He also wanted me to interact with a clerk in every department of each store, and then make a purchase so I could evaluate the cashiers.

What usually ended up happening was I’d spend more money than I earned. My two favorite departments in Building 19 were office/stationery and toys. I always came out of the store with my arms so loaded with bags of stickers, stationery, books, dolls, action figures and Star Wars spaceships, I barely could carry them.  Then, at the end of the week I’d wonder why I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills.

I also loved to browse in the Building 19 samples department, which featured exclusive fashions by famous designers. I can remember drooling over the dresses, most of which were so small (because they had been worn by fashion models) that even if I’d lived on nothing but celery sticks and water for a month, I still couldn’t have squeezed my big toe into any of them.

And I got a kick out of the store’s weekly newspaper ads, which were drawn in cartoon form and usually had silly captions. One swimsuit ad, for example, showed a cartoon of a woman wearing a bikini and posing in knee-deep water, while sharks wearing inner tubes circled her.  Several times, however, the ads caused controversy or offended people, such as when the store advertised a sale on men’s “wife beater” shirts, or it printed an ad backwards especially for people with dyslexia.

The store also offered free coffee to its shoppers. I hate to say it, but the coffee was about as appealing as swamp water and featured, according to the sign, “real fake cream.” I think the store realized how bad its coffee was because there often were signs near it that said things like, “Don’t complain about our coffee! Someday, you’ll be old and weak, too!”

About 20 years ago, the store held a contest that offered a cash prize for the best shopper-created Building 19 video commercial. Not only would the winner receive a cash prize, his or her commercial actually would be aired on TV.

I decided I had nothing to lose by trying, so one night, while my husband was sound asleep, I grabbed my video camera and set it up on a tripod. Then I searched through the house and found a variety of merchandise I’d purchased at Building 19 and set it out on the kitchen table. I had no real plan or script in mind, I just turned on the camera, got behind the table and started talking.

“It was the day before payday,” I said to the camera, “and you know how that is! I was pretty broke. Still, I went to Building 19, just to browse, and I ended up buying all of this stuff!” I made a dramatic sweep of my hand to indicate my haul, which included everything from a sweater, teapot and shoes to a stack of books and a blanket. Back then, Building 19 accepted only cash, no credit cards, which was why I emphasized being broke.

Then I continued, “The next day, I got paid and went shopping at a big-name department store. And for the same amount of money I spent at Building 19, I was able to buy this!”  I held up a pair of cheap-looking knit gloves, frowned at them and tossed them over my shoulder.

That was the whole commercial. I packed it up and sent it off to the contest the next day without another thought…and without telling anyone.

No one was more shocked than I was to learn that my commercial had made the finals.  The finalists’ commercials then were shown on a public-access station in Massachusetts (which, unfortunately, I couldn’t get here) and viewers were asked to vote for their favorite.

For reasons I still can’t fathom, my commercial won. I received a nice check, and my commercial was aired on TV.  I thoroughly enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.

But I had to laugh at an unexpected prize I also received – a bottle of Building 19’s  “Chateau de Cheapeau” champagne. It said on the label, “Vintage: Thursday. An ideal accompaniment to partridge, pheasant, rack of lamb, Ring Dings, Twinkies and Moon Pies.  After drinking, stay away from open flame.”

Yep, I’ll really miss Building 19 because it holds so many fond memories.

But I still have that sealed bottle of Chateau de Cheapeau champagne as a souvenir.

And I just might open it someday, even though it probably will taste like flat vinegar.




Wednesday, November 6, 2013


While I was out walking last week, I kept hearing a rattling noise coming from my feet. Every time I took a step, it sounded as if I had maracas attached to my shoes. Even my dog kept staring at them. She probably thought she was about to be attacked by a rattlesnake.

When I got home, I checked my shoes. They’re a running shoe that has what looks like a hollow plastic tube wrapped around the backs of the heels. Well, the shoes were so worn out, there were holes in the tubes, and gravel had gotten into them. Every time I walked, the gravel bounced around inside the plastic.

I figured the time finally had come to buy some new running shoes – or to join a mariachi band and shake my feet.

 I thought I’d simply go to the Internet and enter the brand and model number of my current shoes and order a new pair. Unfortunately, the style was so old, it wasn’t even being manufactured any more.

So I headed to a store that sells athletic footwear.  The minute I started reading the shoe boxes, I felt as if I had entered some alternate universe. Back when I was a kid, whenever I needed a pair of sneakers (tennis shoes), Mom bought me either Keds or PF Flyers. There wasn’t a whole lot of decision making involved, other than the color.

But now I was facing a sea of shoes with names like Air Pegasus, Wave Prophecy, Gel Runner, Power Grid, BioWeb and Titanium Tootsies (OK, maybe I made up that last one). They all sounded like something Captain Kirk might wear on Star Trek.

The fact that I have one weird foot makes buying shoes a real challenge for me. Not only does my right ankle pronate (cave in to the left) when I walk, I have a bunion so big on that foot, I’ve actually christened it “Benny.” Because of Benny, I am more comfortable wearing men’s shoes, which can cause some real style issues, especially when I want to wear a cocktail dress. Fortunately, when it comes to running shoes, men’s and women’s styles are pretty similar.

A clerk soon approached and asked if I needed help. The completely lost expression on my face must have tipped him off. I told him I wanted some sturdy running shoes that would prevent me from pronating.

He stared blankly at me. “Prevent you from what?” he asked.

“Walking on the inside of my foot.”

He nodded. “The women’s shoes are right over here.”

“I wear men’s,” I said. When he again just stared at me, I added, “Have you ever seen the movie where Cinderella’s stepsisters are trying to squeeze their size-11 feet into a size-3 glass slipper so they can marry the prince? Well, that’s how I look when I try to wear women’s shoes.”

Judging from the guy’s expression, I was pretty sure he thought he was way too macho to ever have watched Cinderella.

Until then, I’d never realized that trying on shoes was so physically demanding. I mean, I had to take them out of the box, remove the wadded-up tissue paper stuffed inside the toes, then figure out how to untie the creative knots in the laces – many of which looked as if they’d been replicated from a macramé pattern. And every time I slipped my foot into a shoe, I had to bend over to lace it up and then stand and walk on it to test it.

So after trying on about 30 pairs of shoes, I felt as if I’d spent six hours in the gym.

The problem was, there was something wrong with every shoe. One pinched my big toe. Another rubbed my heel. And just about all of them did nothing for my pronation. When I finally did find one that seemed passable, it was too big, and wasn’t made in a smaller size. I left there without buying a thing.

I waited a few days before I went shoe shopping again. This time, I was more prepared. I’d done some research on my computer about the brands and styles that were best for pronation, and wrote them down. Armed with my list, I went to the mall, Sears, two sporting-goods stores and a department store, the majority of which carried none of the shoes on my list. Still, I tried on over 50 pairs.

Once again I came home without buying any footwear. But my back was so sore after bending over to lace up so many shoes, I didn’t feel like going for my daily walk anyway.

Out of desperation, I checked Ebay to see if someone might be auctioning off a pair of running shoes in the brand and style of my ancient ones. I couldn’t believe my eyes when three pairs popped up…and one miraculously was in my size. I immediately placed a bid and won.

The only drawback was the shoes were described as “gently used.” With my luck, the guy who wore them suffered from a bad case of athlete’s foot or some rare, toe-eating fungus.

I’ll take my chances.